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Senate chaplain: ‘Cover our shame’

  • Written by Daniel Burke/CNN
  • Published in News

AngryProphet-600The federal shutdown has found its angry prophet.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black is usually a calm, pastoral presence on Capitol Hill, doling out spiritual wisdom and moral counsel to his high-powered flock.

But the Seventh-Day Adventist and former Navy rear admiral is mad as hell about the shutdown – and he's letting the Senate, and the Lord, know about it.

"Lord, when the federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of (soldiers) dying on far-away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough," Black said in his prayer opening the Senate on Wednesday.

"Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness," Black continued, citing the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who was no mean critic of government incompetence himself. "Forgive us. Reform us. And make us whole."

Black was referring to the withholding of death benefits for the families of U.S. soldiers because of the partial federal shutdown. The House Wednesday unanimously voted to fund the benefits, with the timing of the Senate vote uncertain. Meanwhile a private foundation had stepped up to fund the death-benefits lapse until the shutdown is over.

Black's opening prayers have grown increasingly harsh towards Congress.

"Save us from the madness," the chaplain said last week.  "Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable."

Last Friday, he addressed the heavens on behalf of the Senate, asking God to "remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism. Forgive them the blunders they have committed."

Washington's inability to keep the government open affects not only Black's Bible but also his paycheck. He's not being paid during the shutdown.

The Senate elected its first chaplain in 1789, and a minister has opened the chamber with a prayer for the last 207 years, according to the chaplain's office. Most enter the annals of history unnoticed. The chaplain is supposed to be nonpartisan, nonsectarian and nonpolitical.

But as the shutdown enters its second week political reporters have begun to tune in to Black's opening prayers. The New York Times put the 65-year-old on the its front page on Monday under the headline "Give Us This Day, Our Daily Senate Scolding."

Black, who was raised in a rough section of Baltimore, served in the Navy for 27 years and was appointed the Senate chaplain in 2003 by former Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.

For the most part, he has avoided political debates, but he spoke out during the George Zimmerman trial, telling CNN in 2012 that Trayvon Martin, the teenager Zimmerman killed "could have been me."

Even when he doesn't take a public stand, Black said his private meetings with the 7,000 people who work in the Senate gives him an opportunity to discuss the moral implications of lawmaking.

"I don't think there is ever a major vote where I don't talk to a number of senators regarding the ethical dimensions of the issues they are debating," Black told CNN in 2010.

(Daniel Burke is CNN's Belief Blog co-editor.)

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